New lawsuit challenges I-70 project
A group of community activists filed an environmental lawsuit before a Monday deadline for any remaining legal challenges to the $1.2 billion expansion of Interstate 70 through northeast Denver and Aurora.
And late Monday, the Sierra Club and several community groups were expected to file a separate lawsuit against the I-70 project, based on concerns that the expanded highway will violate federal air-quality rules.
The first lawsuit’s filing came with the revival of a longstanding claim: that the Colorado Department of Transportation and the city of Denver obscured what the activists, and even some City Council members, see as an obvious reliance by the I-70 project on a separate set of city storm-drainage projects called the Platte to Park Hill program.
City and CDOT officials, however, maintain a more nuanced position. They say CDOT has planned an independent drainage system of pipes and retention ponds, and it likely would be able to reduce the size of that system if the city proceeds with its complementary neighborhood drainage improvements.
Regardless, the lawsuit contends that the yearslong environmental impact review process conducted by CDOT for the urban highway project should have considered the effects of the city’s drainage project — and because it didn’t, the review failed to cover all of I-70’s drainage needs in the interest of avoiding project delays. The suit says both projects will negatively affect nearby lowerincome and majority-Latino neighborhoods, disturb contaminated soils and pollute the South Platte River when runoff from a lowered section is channeled into it.
“This isn’t our preferred alternative to work against the project,” said activist Brad K. Evans during a news conference outside the U.S. District courthouse in downtown Denver.
But the new lawsuits are part of a coordinated, multipronged legal strategy by a wide-ranging group of activists across several Denver neighborhoods. They join two other pending lawsuits against the highway and city drainage projects.
Opponents’ efforts so far have failed to stop them, but backers of the new suits say they’re optimistic.
“This is a boondoggle,” said Evans, flanked at the announcement by about 40 community members, project opponents and a few elected officials. “We’re after justice, we’re after transparency and we’re after accounting on this project.” Including a future phase, “this is a $2 billion project that’s likely going to cost much, much more.”
His lawsuit was filed Sunday by the Denver law office Keating, Wagner, Polidori and Free. His fellow plaintiffs are Kyle Zeppelin, Kimberly Morse, Jacqueline Lansing and Christine O’Connor.
Named as the defendant is the Federal Highway Administration, which granted federal approval for the I-70 project in January. The legal filing seeks judicial review of that decision. An FHWA spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment on litigation.
CDOT plans to kick off five years of construction early next year on the funded first phase of the project, estimated at $1.2 billion. It calls for the widening of the six-lane freeway between Brighton Boulevard and Chambers Road to add a new managed express toll lane in each direction. The project would replace a crumbling 1.8-mile viaduct with a below-grade highway between Brighton and Colorado boulevards, through Elyria-Swansea.
Part of that section would be topped by a 4-acre parkland cap next to Swansea Elementary, the largest of several community concessions offered by CDOT.
A statement issued by CDOT expressed confidence in its 14-year environmental review.
“CDOT is confident that our unprecedented community outreach process and our thorough technical analysis meet and exceed the standards set by the National Environmental Policy Act,” Central 70 project director Anthony DeVito said. “We believe this process, our analysis, and this project will stand up under the toughest legal scrutiny.”
That is what CDOT’s work is now likely to get in the courts, and attorney Melissa Hailey said Monday that in coming weeks she plans to seek an injunction pausing both the highway and city drainage projects.
“Cities around the county have figured out that 1960sera urban highways through minority neighborhoods are some of the worst planning practices from the last century,” said Zeppelin, a developer in Globeville and the River North area. “And now, with a booming economy, it’s time to invest in people and the future with transit, green infrastructure (for storm drainage) and affordable housing.”
Said Jim Alexee, the Colorado chapter director for the Sierra Club: “It’s incumbent upon state and federal entities to fully appreciate and honor the basic human right to breathe clean, healthful air. Neither the state of Colorado nor the federal government has done so in their planning and approval of Central 70.”
The Sierra Club’s expected lawsuit against the FHWA includes the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, the Colorado Latino Forum and the Chaffee Park Neighborhood Association as plaintiffs. It’s based on air pollution concerns as well as what the plaintiffs consider CDOT’s inadequate consideration of an alternative that would remove I-70 through northeast Denver, rerouting the traffic along interstates 270 and 76 to the north.
CDOT has rejected that option as unrealistic.